By Lori Rackl
The Chicago Tribune
A big player in the cruise industry is diving into the Great Lakes market.
Switzerland-based Viking, which built its name plying the rivers of Europe, is extending its reach into North America in 2022 with voyages exploring the largest surface of fresh water in the world.
The announcement was made last week at an event in Beverly Hills, Calif., where Viking founder and chairman Torstein Hagen rolled out details about the cruise line’s “expedition” voyages.
These include trips to far-flung locales such as Antarctica and the Arctic, as previously reported, as well as newly revealed itineraries in the closer-to-home Great Lakes — an increasingly popular cruise destination.
“We began as Viking River Cruises; then we evolved into Viking Cruises with the addition of ocean cruises,” Hagen said in a written statement announcing the news.
“Today we stand singularly as Viking, offering destination-focused voyages on more than 20 rivers, five oceans and five Great Lakes, visiting 403 ports in 95 countries and on all seven continents.”
The company is in the process of building two ships specifically tailored to expedition-style cruising.
The first vessel, Viking Octantis, is scheduled to make its maiden voyage in January 2022. It will be assigned to the Great Lakes and Antarctica.
Its sister ship, Viking Polaris, is slated to come on board later that year, in August. Polaris will sail in the waters around Antarctica and the Arctic.
Both ships have capacity to hold 378 guests in 189 staterooms. The vessels are designed to be small and nimble enough to navigate remote polar areas and the St. Lawrence River, but big enough to handle potentially rough waters and not sacrifice passenger comfort.
The cruise line’s initial Great Lakes offerings don’t include Chicago as a port of call. But most of the itineraries allow customers to tack on a two-night trip in the city as a pre- or post-cruise option for an additional charge.
Viking has four types of Great Lakes cruises in 2022:
n Undiscovered Great Lakes is an eight-day voyage from Thunder Bay, Ontario, to Milwaukee, with a passage between Lake Superior and Lake Huron via the Soo Locks. Passengers visit the Apostle Islands in Wisconsin and Michigan’s car-free Mackinac Island, among other stops. Trips run between May and September. Pricing starts at $6,695 per person.
n Great Lakes Explorer travels from Milwaukee to Thunder Bay over eight days. It has some of the same ports as Undiscovered Great Lakes. But this one also spends time in Canada’s Georgian Bay, often referred to as the sixth Great Lake, where passengers can opt to kayak around some of the bay’s 30,000-plus islands. Sailing dates between May and September; starting at $6,495.
n Niagara & the Great Lakes is another eight-day voyage, this one hitting Niagara Falls en route between Toronto and Milwaukee. Other stops include Detroit and Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes. It’s offered in April, May, June, July and September with prices from $5,995.
n The longest voyage of the bunch, Canadian Discovery is a 13-day excursion that starts in New York and meanders along Canada’s southeast coast to the St. Lawrence River. Passengers explore the marine-life rich Saguenay Fjord and can test their luck salmon fishing in Quebec’s Moisie River. This trip ventures into only one of the Great Lakes: Lake Ontario, where the voyage caps off in Canada’s biggest city, Toronto. Sailing dates are in April and October, with a minimum price tag of $8,995.
Prices include shore excursions, meals, some alcoholic beverages, Wi-Fi and port fees.
The inaugural rates listed above are good through the end of February on 2022 and 2023 voyages. During that introductory booking period, Viking is throwing in free roundtrip airfare to and from major gateways in North America.
Unlike some expedition ships that are refurbished research vessels, Octantis and Polaris are being built with soaring windows to maximize views. A retractable glass dome covers an area with three different temperature pools. Each of the 665-foot-long ships has multiple dining venues, a spa and a fitness center.
Modern, Scandinavian-style staterooms range in size from a snug 222 square feet to the sprawling 1,223-square-foot owner’s suite with a large, private garden.
All of the cabins have king-size beds, heated bathroom floors and what’s called a Nordic balcony, where the top portion of the floor-to-ceiling glass wall can be lowered to elbow level to mimic a traditional balcony.
The expedition vessels, which are under construction in Norway, feature an enclosed marina dubbed The Hangar, where guests can board and disembark smaller, high-speed excursion boats from a stable surface protected from the elements.
In a glass-covered mezzanine above The Hangar, Viking’s team of “resident scientists” will be conducting environmental research during the voyages. Passengers can visit the lab to learn more about the work and even lend a hand.
For the Great Lakes trips, Viking has partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, whose scientists will join expeditions to study changes in the region’s weather, climate and ecosystems.
Each ship will be equipped with two submarines that can seat six guests for underwater exploration.
Seas can get rough in the polar regions _ even in the Great Lakes. The Octantis’ and Polaris’ longer hulls, straight bows and what’s billed as state-of-the-art fin stabilizers are designed for smoother sailing. The company says U-tank stabilizers should decrease rolling by up to 50% when the ships are stationary.
Viking’s foray into expedition-style cruising marks the latest expansion for the fast-growing cruise line. In recent years, the proud “Downton Abbey” sponsor added small-ship ocean voyages to its lineup. The current fleet consists of 79 river and ocean vessels. Plans call for rolling out seven new river ships this year. Half a dozen ocean vessels are on order, with the option to add four more. That could bring Viking’s ocean fleet to 16 ships by 2027.
“We invented the concept of modern river cruising when we launched in 1997; then we reinvented ocean cruises and became the ‘World’s Best Ocean Cruise Line’ (Travel + Leisure magazine) in our first year of operation, as well as every year since then,” Hagen said in the news release. “Now, in creating ‘the thinking person’s expedition,’ we are perfecting polar expedition cruising, and we will usher in a new era of comfortable exploration in the heart of North America.”
Viking’s move into the Great Lakes is yet another sign that the drumbeat for cruising in the heart of North America is getting louder. Some customers like the idea of sticking closer to home as they age, while veteran cruisers are simply hungry for fresh destinations.
Operators that have been playing in this sandbox for years, such as Blount Small Ship Adventures, recently bulked up their brochures with additional trips, and lines that bailed on the area years ago are heading back. The French line Ponant returned last season, and German-based Hapag-Lloyd Cruises is debuting bilingual voyages in German and English aboard its new Hanseatic Inspiration later this year.